This Year’s Iowa Caucuses Could Be the Wildest Yet
By David Yepsen
Jan. 22, 2016 5:44 p.m. ET
Des Moines, Iowa
Just when you thought you’d seen everything, another surprise in the 2016 presidential race. On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said a Ted Cruz victory in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses would be “very damaging” for his corn-producing state, given the Texas senator’s opposition to federal subsidies and preferences for ethanol. Mr. Branstad stopped short of endorsing another GOP candidate, but he made it clear that Mr. Cruz is “heavily financed by Big Oil” and that “it would be a big mistake for Iowans to support him.”
It’s too early to say how Mr. Branstad’s uncharacteristic foray into presidential politics will affect the Iowa caucuses or subsequent primaries. But it’s a reflection of how much is at stake in this race and the importance of Iowa as the first state to vote in the primary race.
For better or worse, since 1972 the Iowa caucuses have played an important role in the selection of America’s president. This year is no different. Both parties are searching for definition, direction and, above all, a winner. What is different is the mood of Iowa voters. They’re angry. Whether it’s the blue-collar types who pack Republican Donald Trump’s rallies or the millennials jamming into Democrat Bernie Sanders’s events, many are fed up with the old ways of doing things and are signing up with the most-passionate candidates in both parties.
There is ample evidence that caucus night will be a late one. Neighborhood meetings that used to attract only a few dozen people now measure attendance in triple digits. In the school lunch rooms, community centers and town halls across the state, the lines will be long for those grass-roots activists braving the elements to register their protest vote.
Yet polls are limited predictors of what will happen on caucus night. People may show up with some initial preferences but the dynamic of people talking—and arguing—with friends and neighbors about who would be the best candidate or the best president can and sometimes does change minds.
Historically, these meetings have done two things: culled the field of weaker candidates and raised relatively obscure ones to national prominence— Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in 2008, for instance.
With nine days left before caucus night, Donald Trump leads Ted Cruz by just 2.6 points with Marco Rubio a distant third, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average. Hillary Clinton’s once impressive lead over Bernie Sanders is now 6.4 points. The Clinton people seem spooked and the Sanders folks can smell an upset.
Among the Republican contenders, Mr. Cruz is believed to have the best team on the ground in Iowa. And despite Gov. Branstad’s criticisms, Mr. Cruz will attract many conservative caucus-goers who agree with him about abortion, immigration and the size of government but don’t want Mr. Trump in the White House.
Mr. Trump gets the best crowds, and his challenge is to motivate supporters to attend their local caucus. Sarah Palin’s recent endorsement of The Donald is significant because she can become a good motivator to convince these people to show up on a cold night.
Marco Rubio has some upside potential. He will attract votes from all of the factions in the GOP, especially those who’ve grown weary of the sniping between Messrs. Trump and Cruz, or who are looking for a less colorful candidate who actually might be able to win in November.
Counting votes has been an issue in the past. Republicans do a simple straw poll at their caucuses: Write a name on a piece of paper and drop it in the box. Democrats divide into “preference groups” with people supporting the same candidate huddling together. Delegates to the county conventions for those candidates are awarded based on the strength shown in these preference groups.
Historically, one or both parties has troubles or glitches with the tabulations. The process of local volunteers counting votes in more than 1,000 precincts and reporting those results to a statewide tabulation center often produces problems. It awarded the caucus-night victory to Mitt Romney in 2012 only to switch the lead to Rick Santorum a few days later when more votes got counted. Unfortunately for Mr. Santorum, no one reprinted the newspapers headlined “Romney Wins.” Hence: no media momentum, no burst of new volunteers or fresh contributions from donors.
To correct this problem, the two parties have joined with Microsoft to create a computerized reporting system that promises fast, accurate results. Let’s hope so. It may be too much to expect that a new system used for the first time by thousands of people will work flawlessly. With the races as close as they are, a “Trump and Clinton Win” headline could be reset hours or even days later to read “Cruz and Sanders Triumph.”
Mr. Yepsen, a political writer for the Des Moines Register for 34 years, is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.